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What is HPV?

HPV stands for human papillomavirus.

HPV is a very common sexually transmitted infection which usually causes no symptoms and goes away by itself, but can sometimes cause serious illnesses. HPV is responsible for:

  • almost all cases of genital warts and cervical cancer
  • 90% of anal cancers
  • 65% of vaginal cancers
  • 50% of vulval cancers
  • 35% of penile cancers
  • 60% of some cancer of the mouth and throat.

Four out of five people will have HPV at some point in their lives. It is sometimes called the 'common cold' of sexual activity. HPV infects both men and women. The virus is spread through intimate contact with genital-skin during sexual activity (not just penetrative sex). The virus enters the body through tiny breaks in the skin. Usually this happens without anyone ever knowing it or it causing any problems.

Condoms offer some but not total protection from HPV, as they don't cover all of the genital skin. They do offer protection from many other sexually transmitted infections though, and help prevent unwanted pregnancy.

You can be exposed to HPV the first time sexual activity occurs, from only one sexual partner. 

Treating HPV

There is currently no treatment for HPV.

In most cases your body clears HPV from the body naturally over time and it has no long-lasting effects.

Most people with HPV have no symptoms and will never know they have it. For women, having regular Cervical Screening Tests once they become sexually active is the only way to detect HPV.

Genital warts can be treated ­by doctors or at sexual health clinics.

HPV and cancer

Some high-risk HPV types can cause serious illness including cancer.

Sometimes HPV does not clear the body naturally – usually when the infection is with high-risk types­. We call this ‘persistent' HPV infection.

Persistent HPV infection can cause abnormal cells to develop on the cervix, which may develop into cervical cancer, usually over many years, if they remain untreated. Although cervical cancer is the most common type of cancer caused by HPV, persistent infection is also known to cause other cancers affecting men and women, including cancers of the penis, anus, vulva, vagina and throat.

HPV and genital warts

Having genital warts does not mean you are at risk of cancer.

Genital warts are caused by low-risk types of HPV which do not cause cancer.

Genital warts are a very common sexually transmitted infection in Australia, especially in young people.

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Two young females

HPV stands for human papillomavirus, a very common sexually transmitted infection which usually causes no symptoms and goes away by itself, but can sometimes cause serious illnesses.

Design and partial content reproduced with the kind permission of the New Zealand Ministry of Health.

The HPV vaccine is a prescription medicine. Medicines have benefits and risks. After reading this website, talk to your doctor about the benefits and risks of this vaccine and to check eligibility.

Females who have had the HPV vaccine still need regular Cervical Screening Tests.